Sabbath rest is not about taking a break. Properly understood, it is about putting an end to the restlessness that keeps our living distracted, fragmented, and perpetually dissatisfied. This is why it is so important to correct those forms of life that get in the way of our participation in God’s own Sabbath rest and delight in the world.
In The Metropolis and Mental Life, published in 1903, the German sociologist and philosopher Georg Simmel argued that practical features of modern urban life—things like housing, transportation, shopping, and the shift to wage labour in an office or factory—were transforming human beings in fundamental ways. No longer confined to the slower and familiar rhythms of village and rural life, people found themselves confronted by the speed, unpredictability, variety, and impersonality of so many encounters and transactions. The whirl of activity and movement, and the anonymity of people and places, had the effect of creating “the blasé outlook,” a condition in which people find it difficult to be personally or emotionally invested in others. Sensing their lives to be fragmented and scattered, or simply overwhelmed by the constant flow of stimuli, people retreated into themselves and held others at arm’s length. Simmel’s realization was that the structures of daily, embodied life profoundly affect how people perceive, feel, and think about the world and their place within it.
The same is true today. Does our near-mandatory reliance on screens and our perpetual connectivity to nearly every inch, creature, and (past and present) moment of this planet mean that we will be so overwhelmed by images, data, and news that we cannot properly attend to any proximate thing or place with the curiosity, patience, and precision it deserves? Does our frantic movement through places mean that we will miss the “thisness” of things and locations that only becomes available when we move into places and abide with creatures?
Sabbath rest speaks specifically to this predicament because it calls us to say “No!” to the distraction and fragmentation. It calls us to streamline and simplify our living to the kinds of habits and activities that open us to the love of God moving in the places of our life. The point of simplification is to work on the practical conditions that will make our encounters with each other and our neighbourhoods more honest, less negligent, and deeply considerate. A desire to simplify, I think, grows out of an acknowledgement that it is extraordinarily difficult to be fully present to each other, and then to rest content in the knowledge that where we are and who we are with are not only enough, but also potentially the sources of joy and delight. What Simmel helps us understand is that a desire to simplify will be forever frustrated if we don’t adjust and correct the bodily movements and the daily habits that keep us either distracted or anxious, and others either anonymous or unknown.
Scripture understands our predicament from the start, which is why it opens with an account of the creation of the world that finds its fulfillment in Sabbath rest. The Shabbat that God first practices and then invites us to is not a call to “check out” or “shut down” our involvements in the world and with each other. How could it be, since the creation God faces on that first Sabbath sunrise is a scene of indescribable goodness and beauty? Like God, we should want to take up the bodily postures that will better position us to be present to each other in ways that allow their God-given, God-loved qualities to shine. Sabbath rest is not God’s or our escape from the world. As if the world was a problem or a burden to be avoided. It is, rather, our putting to an end all the restlessness that keeps us frantic and anxious, so that we can, at least for some of the time, begin to share in God’s own delight in a world beautifully and wonderfully made.
Simplicity and Sabbath are two names for the same desire to encounter and experience each place and every creature as God’s love variously made visible, fragrant, audible, tactile, and delicious. In this desire, the built environments and the practical habits that create what Simmel called the blasé outlook, or what I have been describing as our inability to be present to each other, are acknowledged and corrected. To live a simple life, however, is anything but easy. It is an act of resistance against the distracting, anxiety-inducing ways of cultures that degrade creatures and that diminish God’s Sabbath delight. To simplify is to commit to clearing away the clutter that prevents us from cherishing the creaturely bodies in which the love of God is at work.